Very few people seemed to care about the history of video games in the 90s: everyone just played them. Truthfully though, back then the medium was still in its teenage years; it would be rather unreasonable to expect people to start looking back and think about the evolution of the medium, let alone on the issue of preservation. Video games are now approaching their middle age, consequently more and more documentaries and books about their history are seeing the light. Retrogaming is not anymore only about remembering, emulating old titles or simply collecting boxes and manuals: it is also about writing down what was going on, at least before everything gets lost or forgotten. It is no wonder, then, that a book like Masters of Doom managed to sell so many copies and that even Netflix decided to produce a documentary on the topic with the highly praised High Score series. But what about a more obscure topic like Nintendo in Italy?
An element that is often forgotten when talking about the history of gaming is marketing: how were the games sold, what was the terminology the marketing people used, what were their images and references. Unfortunately, watching the High Score documentary doesn’t really help much on that front, especially because it seems to focus exclusively on the history of gaming in the United States. Personally, I feel it is important, then, to jump at every possible chance to uncover facts and tidbits about what actually happened in Europe in the 80s and 90s, a market that operated under different rules and currents.
The EU gaming market
It is generally quite arduous to trace a history of a market so big and complex as that of Europe in these two decades. This is because, as it might be expected, each country had different trends and the markets functioned differently, along with a historical lack of official sources and reliable numbers. Still, let us try and get down some very general guidelines.
In Europe in the early 80s, home computers were among the best-selling items on the gaming market; the few consoles available had a smaller niche, along with a younger target audience. Sega was among the first Japanese videogame companies to set about conquering the West, in both US and Europe. They accomplished this by getting to know the different tastes of their potential audience and, then, trying to appeal to that specific public. That approach took its time to work on the American public that, burned by the chaos caused by the flooding of the market by the likes of Atari and Mattel, needed a radically different approach to fall in love again with video games: cue Nintendo and their idea of redesigning the Famicom to appeal to Western audiences.
In Europe, the US great market crash seemed to have pretty limited effects. There was no real flooding of the console market, nor did any game cause a huge backlash since, again, people that owned an Atari 2600 were definitely in limited numbers. After 1985, the NES was being distributed by various companies in different countries, Mattel and Bandai among them. Still, the console took a while to gain its footing, while the Master System, in the very same period, seemed to fare much better, thanks to specific marketing agreements with German and Spanish distributors. It took several years, only by 1990 Nintendo and Sega were competing on the same level in the EU market, with the first easily taking over the market in the following years, because of Sega’s notorious missteps with the Mega CD (the PAL name for the Sega CD) and the 32X, released in Europe in 1993.
Nintendo of Europe, in fact, would only be created officially in 1990 (see infra), in the following years the company would go on creating specific country branches in the Netherlands, Spain, France and the United Kingdom. The Super Mario company, thus, seemed to prefer a regional approach, rather than the unified European approach that Sega employed in the same period, with Sega of Europe (which was originally created for arcades but was also overseeing consoles).
Generally, it is correct to say that in Italy, Nintendo and Sega were distributed by two toy companies: Nintendo with GiG and Sega with Giochi Preziosi. The only exceptions would be Nintendo’s Game and Watches, which were first distributed by several companies, among them none other than Giochi Preziosi.
Nintendo in Italy: Wonderland & Mattel
Wonderland – a subsidiary of toys company Worlds of Wonder, controlled in Italy by Mattel – was the first company to officially distribute the NES in Italy in 1986. It wasn’t a long-lasting relationship though, the Japanese company seemed to be pretty unhappy with the poor sales, the high price point and the very limited TV commercials done by the company. The problem seemed to solve itself though since, after little more than a year, the World of Wonders brand was phased out by Mattel.
Coherently, between 1987 and 1988, there did not seem to be any major changes in Nintendo’s marketing in the country. The ads and commercials still referred to the NES as a “video system” and to the Zapper as a “video pistol”. This choice of words seemed to be definitively more in line with the old ways of Atari and Intellivision, rather than to the more teenage-friendly slang being used by Nintendo in America.
Thanks to several magazine ads of the time, it is easy to find out that the NES, by the late 80s, was being sold for 200.000 Italian liras (in the realm of today’s 200€/$) and almost three times as much, 590.000, for the deluxe version. The deluxe package, along with the Zapper (or videopistol), also included the infamous ROB add-on, which was barely supported in Italy: the second game compatible with the small robot, Stack-Up, was never officially sold in stores, apparently
Sales did not seem to really improve, this was also because the choice of available titles that Mattel imported did not cater to the tastes of Italian kids, along with high prices for the carts (which basically came to cost almost half the price of the console itself). To ease kids into the concept of this new console, in 1988 Mattel decided to go ahead with the idea of Nintendo centers: toy stores where it was possible to try titles like Duck Hunt or Super Mario Bros.
The "New" Nintendo marketing and VIP testimonials
By 1990, with the new decade rolling in and an urgent need to improve sales numbers, Mattel’s marketing approach saw a radical shift towards something completely unexpected: celebrity endorsement. Perhaps this was also to try and compete against Sega, which was rapidly recovering market share in Italy after a false start, thanks to Giochi Preziosi bringing football players together with consoles. While celebrities were a common marketing strategy for Italian commercials, it had never been done before for toys. At the time, commercials aimed at children would normally be confined to afternoon time slots, where the “TV per ragazzi” (Television for kids) had its place. The celebrities/sportsmen, then, seemed to mark the difference between marketing for toys and game consoles, now clearly considered to be more important by both Mattel and Giochi Preziosi.
The chosen celebrity was the Italian singer and rapper Jovanotti, who at the time could be considered something of a rapper, basically a poor man’s Vanilla Ice. For once, it seemed like Mattel was thinking one step ahead of its rivals: the Italian artist had a pretty young target audience, hence while it could raise an eyebrow today, for the time it was a sensible choice. Jovanotti was found and created by radio DJ Claudio Cecchetto for that very same reason: appealing to a young audience with simple songs about “typical” problems of their generation.
What is most peculiar about Mattel’s only important marketing campaign for Nintendo is that Jovanotti would advertise the video game company as being synonymous with America, since it was “popular in the States”. Thinking back to Nintendo, especially in the early 90s, they were probably the more exquisitely Japanese company in the gaming industry, hence this overall “American” angle might easily sound perplexing. But, again, it was 1990 and the United States were still everyone’s dream, or at least so did the marketing people reckon. Japan and anime still didn’t have such a grasp on young children, even though things would rapidly change in the span of a few years.
Also, keeping in mind it dates back to 1990, it almost seems like Mattel wanted to shrug off Nintendo’s typical family-friendly atmosphere. They abandoned the outdated dictionary of “video system”, along with the serious Atari and Intellivision-inspired commercials, going instead went for something “cooler”, “rad” and, perhaps, a bit more “adult”. The most notorious TV commercial showed Jovanotti trying to woo a girl by basically mansplaining how to play Super Mario Bros, along with vague romantic/sexual innuendos. Indeed, the Italian rapper can be seen whispering sensually to the girl (whose name he has forgotten because, clearly, there are so many of them) about “Mario having to do a lot of jumps…”. These commercials were – supposedly – aimed at a target audience of 8 to 12-year-olds.
The only other Mattel and Jovanotti commercial I have managed to track down, I don’t suppose any others were made, centers around the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, even though the Christmas release of the game seems to play almost as an afterthought. In the commercial Jovanotti, while playing Top Gun, is having a party with several random people who don’t seem particularly interested in playing with the NES. Naturally, center stage is taken by the appearance of an Einstein lookalike, which is still a figure very much present in Italian commercials today, being – apparently – one of the most important characters in nationwide marketing. Naturally, he stands for the “smart” consumer: if the scientist does it, then all smart people should follow his example.
While the good scientist is busy playing, Jovanotti receives a phone call by none other than “Mr. Nintendo” (?) and he goes into another room where, of course, there is another NES console on which he, finally, plays Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. What is most notable is that the commercial makes not even a vague reference to the movie, which would come out in Italy in December of that same year. It is easy to conclude that Mattel had no economic interest in the cinematic release, which could make sense considering the TMNT toys were being distributed by competitor Giochi Preziosi, SEGA’s Italian distributor.
Despite a lack of official sources on the matter, it is reasonable to conclude that the “Vanilla spaghetti” campaign was pretty much short-lived: two TV commercials and a couple of shots for magazine ads with the singer standing on a Harley Davidson, again catering to his beloved “child of America” motif. By 1991, the rapper seemed to have already distanced himself from the Nintendo brand.
As mentioned, in June of 1990 Nintendo would go on to found its branch in Europe (in Großostheim, Germany), so it would be reasonable to speculate how this event changed relationships between Mattel and the Japanese company since until then the marketing was being presided over by Nintendo of America or, perhaps, Japan. Still, what can be logically concluded is that, by the following year, Mattel seemed to have given up on Nintendo altogether.
A clear victim of Mattel’s decision will be – as we’ll see later in detail – none other than the Game boy, which came to Italy in November of 1990, priced around the 150€/$ mark. A clue of the confusion that was reigning in Mattel’s distribution and marketing is how some NES titles, like Kick-Off and Paperboy, in 1991, actually ended up being distributed by a third party publisher like Leader, an Italian company specialized in home computer games. An unprecedented situation, which will not repeat itself in the future: in 1991 Mattel and Nintendo would part ways, with the Japanese company then deciding to do the obvious step, giving its products to the biggest national toy company, GiG.
Improving on Mattel's marketing approach
GiG (Grossisti Italiani Giocattoli), founded in 1968 by Gianfranco Aldo Horvat, was the biggest toy importer and distributor in the country at the time, controlling the distribution of toys over the entire Italian territory. Mattel had also relied on GiG’s quite effective distribution to cover some of the more difficult to reach areas.
As it turns out, by talking to one of the company’s former marketing directors – who personally managed Nintendo from 1992 onward -, among the various contractual obligations, GiG also committed to acquiring whatever stock was left from Mattel. Apparently, he recalls, there were a lot of unsold Gameboy consoles and NES cartridges left in stock. This seems to make sense when looking at Mattel’s marketing strategy: the Game Boy came at a wrong time in the agreement with Nintendo, being the victim of a limited marketing campaign, along with few commercials, none of them particularly brilliant. It almost feels like Mattel either did not know how to market the portable handheld console or, considering the end of the agreement, were not interested.
GiG had several steps to help Nintendo recover the share of the market lost to Sega: first, selling the leftover NES stock, along with its accessories. Then, they had to find a creative way to market the Game Boy. Last but not least, they also had to prepare for the arrival of Super Nintendo, which was going to be unleashed in Italy a few months down the line, in 1993.
Definitely no small feats, any of them.
The marketing director tells me that Nintendo of Germany acted as a direct employer of GiG, a supervisor of sorts, also establishing a whole set of guidelines, rules and prices. Still, it was only natural that GiG was way more knowledgeable of the Italian market than its overseer, so for the most part, GiG was allowed to carve its own path, with the president, Horvat, usually having the last word on most decisions.
First, the toy distributor hired the Armando Testa advertising agency, at the time one of the more famous in the country, and launched a marketing campaign for the NES, focusing on the most recent games (Super Mario Bros 3 among them) coupled with a more aggressive pricing scheme, a 30% rebate, for games and accessories. This meant that the Game Boy was now being sold at 100.000 lire (less than 100€/$), which was definitely accessible for everyone. Subsequently, they decided to pull out all the stops and produce an Italian market-specific big-budget TV commercial for Nintendo’s portable console, directed by then famous actor and director Maurizio Nichetti.
At the time, in the European Union, companies were not allowed to directly compare to their competitors in commercials and advertisements (there was no Genesis does what Nintendon’t), so GiG could compete against Giochi Preziosi and Sega only through creative means. Unfortunately – the MD tells me – the end result wasn’t worth all the sweat and tears, not to mention the big budget that the marketing office managed to pull for the commercial. Nichetti himself, by the end, seemed to give up on the project and walk away. The commercial is fine and the higher than usual production value shows, especially compared to other similar offerings of the time, but it is neither weird nor memorable enough. In the end, the fight against the Game Gear was won only later, since the Game Boy emerged as the only choice for a portable console after the mid-90s.
But ─ I asked GIG’s former marketing director ─ why go to the trouble to hire a famous director for an already four-year-old handheld like the Game Boy and, instead, decide to produce something completely new for the Super Nintendo? He replied that the Armando Testa agency and Gig quarreled for months on ideas and projects for the new console.
The agency wanted a mature and serious commercial while GiG, and Horvat in particular, seemed to not be ready to market a console as something more than a toy with children as the main audience. In the end, with a few weeks left to decide, it was deemed more sensible to go with the cheapest and safest choice, one that Nintendo of Germany also strongly supported, thus making everyone “happy”. The European Super Nintendo commercial was re-cut and used in Italy as well, keeping the robotic theme intact. Still, some of the images were also deemed a bit too strong for Italian kids’ tastes so some of the scenes were cut, to tone down the robotic madness a bit.
GiG and Nintendo: a solid relationship
GiG seemed to have grasped, from day one, the importance of this “new” toy, the video game, so much so that 90% of the marketing budget was immediately transferred on advertising on television, leaving a minimum for magazines and newspapers. The distributor also used internal testers to check if a title could be compatible with Italian kids’ tastes and, thus, decide if to distribute it or not, partly solving the problems with stock that Mattel seemed to have in the first years. Still, he tells me, Nintendo was always very adamant that GiG had to push and advertise the first-party titles, rather than the third-party ones. But, the Japanese company also had another problem.
Years before the contract with Nintendo, GiG already had kind of a brush with video games, distributing the Tiger handhelds. Nintendo, famously jealous of its relationship, sensed a potential interference with the Game Boy market. The MD tells me that they tried to reassure the Japanese company by telling them the Tigers were “an introduction to the world of serious gaming”, so that girls and boys could then, a couple of years later, approach the more serious Nintendo consoles.
The Italian version of Club Nintendo was also being managed by GiG, after being set up by Mattel: it was little more than a poor man’s copy of Nintendo Power in America. A monthly publication with tips and tricks for games, along with poorly translated articles, the MD remembers it was one of the few topics on which there were several disagreements with Nintendo of Germany, a relationship that ended up with both sides being pretty unsatisfied. It is not fondly remembered by the public either.
And what about the idea of going back to celebrity endorsement? In 1993, Sega and Giochi Preziosi were still using actors, soccer players and sportsmen, couldn’t Nintendo also benefit from a similar strategy? GiG always had a real “toy-centered” philosophy – the MD replied to my observation – hence, they were never very keen on the idea of using celebrity endorsement to sell a product. “We always wanted to keep our focus on the product, if it’s good then it is going to sell, it doesn’t need an actor or a rapper attached to it” he commented.
“Everything else is Game Over!” cry the kids in the commercial. GiG was trying to use slightly older teenagers by the mid-90s.
From 1993 to 1994, GiG’s philosophy proved to be successful, with the Italian market also undergoing some important changes. On one hand, home computers were slowly growing less and less popular, also because of the 1993 anti-piracy law which made things more difficult for pirates. On the other Sega, after a brilliant first two years, seemed to be slowing down, not only for the failure of the Sega Mega Drive’s add-ons but also because, by 1994, Super Nintendo’s games just looked more attractive for the general public. A reality that further titles like Donkey Kong Country and Star Wing would only further solidify.
GiG would ride the wave and also, for the first time, bring Nintendo to the primetime slot, in TV programs that would be broadcasted while families were having dinner, thus finally starting to brand video games as really being “family-friendly”. Things couldn’t be better for Nintendo or, at least, so it seemed until 1995 came along and drastically changed everything.
Sony's arrival: the beginning of the end
The Sony PlayStation, officially released in Italy in autumn of 1995, would completely change the landscape of video games, in the space of a few months. Naturally, the market did help Sony in the endeavor since Sega had all but vanished, with the Saturn being barely supported by Giochi Preziosi, while Nintendo and GiG were taken aback by a new form of marketing that they had never even considered approaching.
By 1996, Italian media were already wondering if Nintendo could even manage to answer to Sony’s “redesign of the entertainment industry” (Massimo Miccoli on La Repubblica).
To compete with Sony’s new way of marketing, GiG decided to pull all stops and commissioned a commercial that featured a shiny 3D rendering for the new Nintendo 64 console. But still, that did not seem to help: my interviewee recalls the “disastrous launch” of the Nintendo 64, which was finally released in Italian shops in March of 1997, almost two years after the PlayStation. By then, the Japanese company’s way of promoting their games and consoles seemed to be out of step with everything else, but still, no amount of persuasion by GiG could make them change their mind.
Notice how GiG was trying to play to its strengths, reminding consumers about the “two years of warranty” and the brand’s recognition. But that did not really seem to scare Sony, especially the PlayStation by then already had Resident Evil, Ridge Racer, Tekken; the N64 couldn’t really compete, even though it might have been the more powerful console. Naturally, in the space of a few years, another competitor would join the challenge: the Sega Dreamcast. Unfortunately, the 128-bit console was caught between Giochi Preziosi leaving the gaming industry and no company being there to pick up the slack.
Going back to 1997, there was another event which also contributed to forever change the way to market video games to kids and teenagers: MTV would finally arrive on Italian’ shores. The director recalls that Nintendo in Italy had little to no space in what was an entirely new television channel exclusively reserved for teenagers: it was mostly Sony, again and again. The console market in Italy ended up paying a hefty price for all the years of exclusively catering to children, by positioning gaming consoles right next to toys.
No adult would ever be seen in public playing a Game Boy, or going into a toy shop to buy a SNES. When Sony arrived screaming to the world “Playstation is for teenagers and adults”, their marketing needed no national adaptation or difficult agreements with national toy distributors. Suddenly, console gaming had grown up. Several Italian gaming journalists also recalled the big change in the landscape, by commenting that both Giochi Preziosi and GiG never really seemed to be interested in trying to get to know this new product, preferring, instead, to rely on their experience as traditional toys companies, first and foremost.
1998-1999: Nintendo's desperation and GiG's bankruptcy
By 1998, with sales on a steep decline, GiG finally managed to convince Nintendo that something was missing from its marketing philosophy. In November of that year, an Official Nintendo Magazine would also be founded, designed to finally replace the outdated model of the Nintendo club magazine. On the marketing side, GiG ended up producing some of their final TV commercials, in an attempt to try and get back at Sony on their playing field: alternative, hyper and “crazy” commercials, which were rather directly inspired by what was the style of MTV Italy at the time.
With the rapping idea almost sounding like something Jovanotti could have tried in 1990, these final waves of commercials and their style seemed to be nonsensical and misguided. Also, note the use of apparent young slang like “Nintendo high!” in a desperate attempt to sound relevant with the kids but, instead, ending up horribly out of step with anything else. But the problems didn’t just end with the marketing being outdated.
With Sony having a clear advantage by working through direct agreements with shops and distributors, Nintendo in Italy seemed to still stick to their ways: peculiar demands and stingy limited releases that made no one happy. Things haven’t changed much on that front, apparently. With the big N intent at keeping its principles intact, it really did seem like nothing could slow down the rise of the PlayStation. The situation was also noted by several national newspapers, with articles that screamed “The toys industry is in a Playstation crisis” (Giancarlo Radice on Il Corriere della Sera, January 1999).
A last-ditch attempt was made by GiG, something unheard of for the Kyoto company and never again attempted: Nintendo as the main sponsor of a soccer team. Since GiG’s headquarters were in Firenze (Florence), the chosen team was obviously the big-league home team Fiorentina. As the director proudly recalls, there actually was a moment when Nintendo trampled Sony in the dust… but, alas, only on the soccer field. In a match that resulted in Fiorentina beating Juventus, which at the time was sponsored by Sony. The MD recalls everyone in the office printing huge photos of the match and posting them everywhere, savoring the small victory.
And that wasn’t all.
in that same year’s football season Fiorentina’s stadium featured Mario’s appearance on the scoreboard’s display whenever a goal was scored by Fiorentina. Wario would, instead, jeer when it was the other team that scored. “After a while” he recalls, “they asked us to remove Wario altogether, and just keep Mario… I can definitely imagine why!”. The last anecdote that the director recalls is when the Pope was supposed to visit Florence and also go to the stadium. GiG was asked to remove all references to Super Mario, which the company refused because they saw no reason to do so. “In the end, Nintendo managed to win over even the Catholic Church” he adds laughing.
The Fiorentina sponsorship was not really appreciated by everyone; even former Nintendo of America’s president Minoru Arakawa made his complaints heard, noting that it wasn’t Nintendo’s way of doing things. Still, GiG persevered and, in the end, managed to win over Nintendo’s resistance.
The Fiorentina sponsorship ended up being GiG’s final marketing stunt, by the end of 1998 the toy company seemed to be in dire straits. Newspapers reported losses for 80 billion Italian liras, on an annual turnover of 537 billion. Among the various reasons, in 1997 GiG had closed a joint venture with the American company Toys ‘R’ Us, investing millions of liras in order to open several shops. The joint venture came at a bad time for the toys industry which was already reporting losses, seemingly riding on brand recognition. But, especially in Italy, the Toys’R’Us brand was not familiar to consumers at all. It was a puzzling decision since GiG already owned its brand of chain shops (Amico Giò).
By December of 1999, “the GiG was up”: the company went bankrupt, ending up being bought out by their fiercest competitor, Giochi Preziosi. A bittersweet ending, considering the two companies had been competing head-to-head for almost thirty years.
Gameboy Advance 2001 Italian commercial
Nintendo was caught in the confusion, ending up in the hands of former Sega distributor Giochi Preziosi. The toys company would then enter again, one final time, the video game market, after leaving Sega behind in 1998. From 1999, in the space of a couple of years, Preziosi would also bring to market the Game Boy Advance, but it seemed like Nintendo’s products barely seemed to interest the Italian toys company. This can be easily noted since all commercials from the time barely seem to mention the Preziosi brand, which is usually the first thing the Toys company cares about.
In 2002, Nintendo decided to establish a subsidiary in Milano, in the North of Italy, acting directly on the market, with no longer any third party involved. In 2009 Gianfranco Horvat, the former CEO of GiG, died in tragic circumstances, shooting his wife and subsequently killing himself. Nintendo in Italy and the Japanese company’s image has been single-handedly created and shaped by a Florence-based company. One could say that, for nearly a decade, Nintendo’s presence in Italy was as Florentine as Renaissance.
The history of the years in which Nintendo was sold in Italy by toys manufacturer can help reconstruct a few important facts on the console market in the Belpaese. By anchoring video games next to toys, the market throughout the 80s and mid-90s registered small numbers, despite a slow and constant growth. It was really Sony PlayStation that put consoles on everyone’s lips, after finding fertile ground. Thanks to aggressive marketing and direct distribution in shops, video games were finally embraced by people who finally saw their hobby been given proper recognition. Naturally, PlayStation sales were also helped by how easy it was to pirate games.
In the space of a few years, Italy went from considering Super Mario a character akin to Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck, specially dedicated to kids, to seeing Lara Croft and Solid Snake on television. These weren’t characters just for kids but were instead part of a more mature narrative that could also interest young adults. So much so that even adults could now consider spending some time with them, without having to hide their consoles. This Sony “monopoly” also heavily contributed to Italy, becoming, by the end of the 90s and almost overnight, a PlayStation stronghold. The country was indeed fond of Nintendo, but the company never had such a strong foot in the door, like in the American market, hence it was relatively easy for Sony to take its place. Little seems to have changed since.
Still today, at the most famous national games and comic fair, the Lucca Comics & Games, it is easy to notice Sony’s huge stands against a very little presence by Nintendo and, close to none, Sega. The much less charismatic battle “Sega vs Nintendo” in Italy might have been won by GiG, but the war was lost.
Sources and References
Interviews were conducted with former GiG ad man Giuliano Doccioli and the Marketing Director for GiG in 2020/2021.
Newspapers cited in the article.
Thanks to everyone who collaborated in revealing firsthand and unheard-of facts about the distribution and marketing of games in Italy.